After conducting a thorough survey of Wirecutter readers and combining those insights with the results of our previous testing, we think the Sonos Playbar is the right soundbar for most people. The Playbar sounds fantastic, and it’s easier to set up and operate than any other soundbar we’ve tested.
The Playbar does not offer the same amount of physical or wireless connectivity as other, higher-performance soundbars we’ve tested in the past, which limits its usefulness a bit if you have a large library of Blu-ray movies or use other sources. But if you use your entertainment system primarily for watching TV, enjoying video-streaming services, or playing digital music (and as best we can tell from our survey results, that’s most of our readers), its lack of inputs shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. And though it doesn’t have Bluetooth or AirPlay support, it is part of the easiest-to-use, best-sounding whole-home audio system we’ve tested.
If high-performance audio is your primary concern and you don’t want to be locked into the Sonos ecosystem, we still think our previous top pick, the Paradigm Soundscape, is the all-around best soundbar you can buy today. It offers the best combination of sound quality, features, and usability of any soundbar that we can find, and when we pitted it directly against other top models in our hands-on testing, it handily beat them all. If you want high-quality audio without the hassles of multiple boxes and wires, the Paradigm Soundscape is tough to beat. Really, the only drawback is its price, which is outside the budget range of most of our readers.
Another great (but pricey) option is the Yamaha YSP-4300, especially if you’re a die-hard movie viewer and you want the best virtual surround effects without the inconvenience of installing extra speakers. It isn’t as good as the Paradigm with music, but its custom IntelliBeam system of 22 drivers makes for the most realistic surround effects without extra speakers for movies. You need side walls for the best results, so it won’t work for everyone, but the tricks it’s capable of under the right conditions are impressive.
If $700 to $1,800 is too rich for your blood, we also have a guide to budget soundbars. Stepping down to this level means giving up many of the benefits of our high-performance picks, especially in build quality and sound performance, but even our low-priced picks will give you an experience far better than the speakers built into your TV can offer.
A soundbar provides much better sound quality than the speakers in a TV, computer, or smartphone, without the complexity of a receiver and speakers. Separate components almost always provide more value for your dollar, but they also take up more space and require additional cables; their operation is more complicated, too. Using a soundbar, you can have most of that additional sound quality while keeping everything easy to use.
Compared with our budget-soundbar picks, the best soundbars utilize additional drivers for each channel, have more-powerful amplifiers, and feature advanced designs. Additional drivers for each channel allow for more clarity and less distortion—things are easy to hear. Having larger amplifiers likewise keeps the soundbar from clipping and also reduces distortion. The advanced designs of higher-end soundbars allow for deeper bass, better virtual surround imaging, and a cleaner look.
You’ll encounter diminishing returns beyond our value-soundbar pick (as with anything). Nonetheless, if you want high-quality audio minus the complexity and space requirements of separate components, you should consider a soundbar.
Selecting the soundbars to bring in for evaluation required parsing through many, many reviews and talking to soundbar reviewers. Determining which reviews were useful and which were not was a challenge, as many reviewers seemed to have considered one or two soundbars and were not sure how to rate them. Reviewers such as Brent Butterworth (an audio reviewer since 1989 for publications including Sound & Vision), Matthew Moskovciak (senior associate editor for home theater at CNET), and Darryl Wilkinson (editor-at-large for Sound & Vision) provided suggestions regarding what to look for. We also looked at the products introduced at the CES trade show to see what was new and deserving of evaluation even before reviews were available.
We eliminated a few options immediately. All pedestal designs, which are typically fatter and designed to sit directly under your TV’s built-in stand, instantly dropped from consideration. While a soundbar of this design can sound great, as the pedestal allows for larger woofers and better bass, the fatter, wider design requires that it lie flat on a table; you can’t wall-mount it, and you need a sizable table to support it. If that format works for you, some good options are available, but we wanted our main pick to work for everyone who is willing to pay for good sound.
From the start, we also eliminated passive soundbars that require a separate receiver to power them. Most people who want a soundbar don’t want to deal with the hassle of speaker cables and a receiver. Passive soundbars from companies such as Golden Ear and PSB have terrific reviews but still need all the wires and components of a regular speaker system and don’t sound quite as good. In custom-install situations you can make such a soundbar work wonderfully, but for most people a powered soundbar is easier to use than regular speakers with a receiver, and a better value too.
We dropped almost anything without Bluetooth or AirPlay support, as well, because you shouldn’t have to pay extra and use up more ports to play music from your phone or computer. Bluetooth is what we prefer, as it works with both Android and iOS devices, and your friends can come over and play their music without needing to hook into your Wi-Fi network. AirPlay does have the benefit of being uncompressed, but Bluetooth is simpler and compatible with a wider selection of devices. We did evaluate one soundbar that lacks these features, the Bowers &Wilkins Panorama 2, because it came so highly recommended by many experts, but at this point a soundbar should include them.
All that said, the most important overall factor is sound quality. Extra features and benefits are nice, but sound quality is nonnegotiable. After sound quality, features and usability are important. Additional features are good so long as they aren’t too hard to use. In our testing we thought one particular bar sounded better than our picks, but taking advantage of that extra sound quality was so much harder with that model that we don’t think the benefit is worth the effort.
Price is also something to consider. You can get a cheap soundbar that sounds decent for about $200 to $300, but it will lack the clarity, bass response, and soundstage of something in the $1,000-plus price range. Spending too much can also be a mistake, however: Once you get into the $2,000-plus range, you’re running into the upper limits of the sound quality that a reasonably sized soundbar can achieve. At that point, it might make more sense to visit a custom installer who could set up a simple-to-use, high-performance audio system that could beat a similarly priced soundbar.
After settling on a selection of five new bars and our previous pick, the Martin Logan Motion Vision, we brought all of them in for listening and evaluation. Over one week, we listened to and took extensive listening notes for each individual bar playing from the same selection of music and movies for almost three hours. Then we consulted the ears of Stephen Hornbrook, an audio reviewer at Secrets of Home Theater and High Fidelity, to help us directly compare the soundbars against one another and narrow the group down to an overall winner. We listened to the soundbars over HDMI, optical, coaxial, and analog inputs, and we used blind A-B switching when possible.
We assembled the soundbars in a home theater room (measuring 12 by 25 by 7.5 feet) that has acoustic treatments to provide a nice music and movie environment. We mounted the soundbars on speaker stands or a table and listened to them with music, movies, and TV. We used an Oppo BDP-103D as the source component, as it can play back Blu-ray, SACD, CD, FLAC, and any other digital format you throw at it; the Oppo player also has analog, coaxial, optical, and HDMI outputs, so it can work with every soundbar no matter what input is required.
We did additional listening in a living room with the soundbar on top of a credenza, with a wall to the left and open space to the right. We figured this spacing would weed out any soundbars that relied on having a perfect room to pull off their surround effects or imaging, which people don’t always (or ever) have.
After those extensive listening sessions, we invited audio reviewer Stephen Hornbrook to evaluate the bars. We listened to two at a time, switching between them on the fly, with a selection of movies and music. We evaluated each bar at least twice until we wound up with our final selection of products. With our final two, the audio quality was very close, and the choice came down to physical size and usability issues.
The Sonos Playbar is a great-sounding soundbar with lots of features that make it easy to use as the center of an entertainment system. As we mention in our guide to the best multiroom wireless speaker system, the Playbar, like the rest of Sonos’s speakers, is dead simple to set up and gives you the best access to streaming content or your music library of any soundbar out there. With no Bluetooth or AirPlay support, and only a single optical input, it is rather limited in connectivity, but if you’re simply looking for a great-sounding, simple option that you can expand into a whole-home audio system, it’s hard to knock. And if you access all your content from a digital music library or streaming services, or if you’ve already bought into the Sonos ecosystem and want a soundbar to add to your setup, the Playbar is pretty much a no-brainer.
As you might expect for a soundbar at this price, the Playbar offers true three-channel audio, with a discrete center channel for voices and other on-screen sound effects. Each channel features a single 1-inch tweeter and dual 3½-inch mid/woofers, which combine to deliver clear, effortless, detailed output, especially in comparison with competitors that provide fewer channels or fewer drivers. Having three discrete channels built into the soundbar itself also means that you can use the Playbar as the basis of a true 5.1-channel surround-sound system with the addition of a pair of wireless Sonos speakers, such as the Play:1, and the Sonos Sub subwoofer.
All in all, the sound quality of the Playbar is noticeably better than that of most rivals. It can’t hit the same low octaves that our upgrade pick, the Paradigm Soundscape, can, at least not without the assistance of a Sonos Sub (which itself costs as much as the Playbar), but it offers very good performance above those lowest octaves. Even without the benefit of surround speakers, it delivers a soundstage that is both wide and pleasantly deep, and thanks to its discrete tweeters it produces clear highs and highly intelligible voices without the muddiness that single-driver products suffer from.
If your setup is a little more complicated, you might be better off looking elsewhere. Adding any external source beyond a TV requires the Sonos Connect, which costs about $350 at this writing and ramps up your system’s price quickly. You could, of course, simply route all of your connected sources through your TV and connect its optical output to the Playbar, but that may not be a workable solution depending on the make and model of your TV. Some TVs, for example, won’t deliver audio from their optical outputs if the source input is HDMI. Others will downmix an incoming Dolby Digital 5.1 surround-sound mix to stereo before passing it along to their optical outputs because of copy-protection rules.
So if you plan on adding Sonos Play:1 or Play:3 speakers and a Sonos Sub to create a full 5.1-channel surround-sound system, you may find that it’s difficult to feed the Playbar a true surround-sound signal, especially since many newer TVs use DTS 2:5 processing to get around the rules that limit surround-sound output, and the Playbar doesn’t surround DTS decoding of any kind. Some workarounds exist, though, and for most people simply looking for a good stereo soundbar, this shouldn’t be a problem.
The Paradigm Soundscape is the best overall soundbar because it offers great sound quality, a wide selection of inputs (including Bluetooth with AptX), and simple setup and operation. Setting it up is as easy as plugging it into the wall and TV. An LED readout lets you quickly determine your input and volume, and if you want more bass, the included wireless adapter works with any subwoofer that you choose—a rarity in this age of proprietary protocols.
When you’re paying this much for a soundbar, you want it to sound great, which the Paradigm Soundscape does. It bested almost all its competitors in our testing thanks to a more-accurate lower-mid range that bestows some extra richness and warmth on movies and music. It throws a very large, involving soundstage and offers clear dialogue with its center channel, too.
The chart above shows the in-room frequency response for four of the soundbars we tested: the Paradigm Soundscape, Monitor Audio ASB-2, Yamaha YSP-4300, and Definitive Technology SoloCinema Studio. After we normalized the results to 1 kilohertz, the Paradigm exhibited a flatter frequency response than the other models; this is why we heard a richness to the midrange on the Paradigm that we did not on the others. Research by Harman International’s Floyd Toole and others has shown that listeners prefer a flat frequency response. We also saw that despite the lack of a subwoofer on the Paradigm, it had bass response down to 40 hertz.
The Soundscape design incorporates three tweeters (for the left, center, and right channels) and four midrange/bass drivers. Its use of discrete drivers for all three channels, whereas many other soundbars have only one or two tweeters, allows for clarity on both stereo music and dialogue. The mid-bass drivers are a relatively robust 4 inches in size, which prevents the Paradigm from being as sleek as the Yamaha or Definitive Technology models but allows it to provide better bass without requiring a subwoofer. The design also eliminates the effects of when a subwoofer crosses over too high (above 120 Hz or so), a point at which bass sounds become directional.
The DSP (digital signal processor) for the surround effects also does a decent job, but it will not convince you that sounds are coming from behind you. The models that do best with faux-surround effects manage it by dedicating channels to those effects, while the Paradigm reserves its drivers for the front three channels. This design provides better music clarity and a larger, more defined soundstage than if they had been utilized for surround, and it’s a decision we agree with.
The Soundscape’s optical input is enough for you to connect it to any decent TV, and its Bluetooth streaming capabilities mean you can wirelessly play music from your phone, tablet, or computer with no additional equipment. It has no HDMI support, but we don’t think that’s a huge deal in a soundbar. The added difference in audio quality with lossless HDMI versus lossy optical or coaxial is even more difficult to discern when you’re dealing with such a small package. HDMI would also require you to use your soundbar remote in addition to your TV remote, which would likely complicate things for not much gain. There is one exception to this HDMI rule, and we will discuss that later. But again, all but the cheapest 32-inch TVs will have a digital or analog output for audio, so you don’t need to worry about it.
Usability is nice and easy with the Soundscape. The lack of HDMI means that it has no on-screen menu system, which actually makes it much easier to use. The LED readout on the front is simple to navigate and quickly displays the input and volume; models that rely on using your TV for such info are frustrating to use when you just want to listen to music. You have few options to adjust. The included remote offers the controls you need plus direct access to important features. Many of the other bars we’ve seen include remotes that are either too small and simple to be useful or too large and clunky. The Paradigm remote strikes a good balance. And we found it easy to teach the Soundscape to respond to a different remote, so you may not even need the included one.
The included wireless subwoofer adapter makes it easy to add a subwoofer later if you desire more bass. Unlike with most soundbar models, which are compatible only with their own brand of subwoofer, the Paradigm Soundscape’s adapter will work with any subwoofer with a standard LFE input. The Soundscape by itself does well, going down to 40 Hz as we mentioned earlier, but if you add a sub the Soundscape crosses over at a nice 80 Hz frequency, which prevents the bass from being localized as it is with many other soundbars.
Writing for Trusted Reviews, Danny Phillips calls the Soundscape a “stunning soundbar that exudes luxury.” When it comes to performance, the Soundscape does very well: “Soundbars don’t have a reputation for being particularly musical but we were blown away by Soundscape’s two-channel performance.” Although the Soundscape earned a perfect 10 out of 10 in both performance and sound quality, in the review Phillips points out the lack of HDMI inputs. Overall, Phillips finds that the Paradigm is “a worthy purchase thanks primarily to its sumptuous design and outstanding sound quality.”
John Sciacca at Residential Systems feels similarly, saying, “Sonically is where the Soundscape truly shines.” Despite having no subwoofer, Sciacca writes, it is capable of “producing rumblings I could feel and pushing the sounds of exploding cannon balls and splintering hulls well beyond the width of the bar.” He only wishes the Bluetooth range were longer.
Mark Hodgkinson of AVForums calls the Soundscape “The Rolls Royce of Soundbars.” When playing stereo music, the soundstage of the Soundscape “is infinitely superior in this regard when compared to your typical soundbar,” and in Hodgkinson’s opinion “there is no better sounding speaker bar.”
The Soundscape has few Amazon user reviews at the moment—just 24 in all—but the majority of them are five stars.
Compared with the model that we think has the best sound quality, the Monitor Audio ASB-2, the Paradigm gave guitars more weight but had slightly less clarity in our tests. Such impressions come down to personal preference, though—while we like the extra clarity of the Monitor Audio soundbar, some people might think it sounds thin by comparison and prefer the Paradigm. Overall both sound great, and in our tests we had to switch back and forth to determine the differences.
The lack of HDMI inputs does not bother us, as most people switch sources on their TV, but a single HDMI input with Audio Return Channel would be a little more future-proof. A couple of TVs out there don’t have optical outputs, so they won’t work well with the Paradigm Soundscape, and adding HDMI with ARC would support those displays. HDMI ARC can be a pain to set up and use, however, which would make the Soundscape more complex.
Paradigm could also clean up the controls on the top of the Soundscape; the labels are confusing to read. With all the space available atop a soundbar, we wouldn’t mind having more buttons to quickly switch between sources. The remote could also have dedicated input buttons to make getting to a specific input easier. Finally, a USB input for plugging in a thumb drive with audio files would be nice so that you wouldn’t have to rely on streaming all the time.
One thing we’ve noticed in using the Paradigm continuously for the past six months is that the blue LED readout can be a little hard to read sometimes. But otherwise it’s been a top-notch performer.
The Yamaha YSP-4300 is a slim soundbar with an included wireless subwoofer that does a better job of providing simulated surround effects than anything else we’ve heard. An array of 22 “beam drivers” in the middle of the bar acts to reflect sound effects off the walls and ceiling to simulate the presence of surround speakers in the room. Using an included calibration microphone (this is the only soundbar in the lineup to have a calibration mic), it determines the reflections off the wall from your main seating position and automatically sets the beam system up. When you’re watching movies, the surround effects seem to come from your side or behind you, an impression that no other bar in our test group could manage.
The YSP-4300 has a full selection of four HDMI inputs with an HDMI output, as well as Bluetooth support and a remote with quick access to every input. It doesn’t sound nearly as good with stereo recordings as it does with multichannel ones. It also costs hundreds more than the Paradigm Soundscape while beating that model only in surround-sound quality, so it isn’t the best overall bar. It is very good for movies and TV.
Although the Monitor Audio ASB-2 offered the best sound quality of any of the soundbars we tested, with superior clarity, an impressive and immersive soundstage, and very good bass even without a subwoofer, it’s absurdly difficult to use, with an interface that’s impossible to navigate. That makes it difficult to recommend, since simplicity is a big part of what makes soundbars so appealing. Three HDMI inputs, HDMI with ARC, and AirPlay support give you plenty of options, but the limited interface means using this soundbar as the center of an entertainment system is far more difficult than it needs to be.
The Arcam Solo Soundbar is loaded with features, but in sound quality it comes up short of the Paradigm Soundscape. With four HDMI inputs, Bluetooth support, an IR repeater, a calibration microphone, and support for Bluetooth headphones, the Solo has almost everything you could want. The biggest flaw is that without the optional subwoofer (which was $700 at the time we checked), the sound is thin compared with that of the Paradigm. Even with the sub, while it has good bass, it still sounds thinner.
With movies, though, the two bars are very close. They sound different, but neither sounds better than the other. What the Paradigm offers is a discrete center channel, whereas the Arcam has just stereo left and right channels. These design differences mean that movie and TV-show dialogue is easier to understand on the Paradigm, since that model has its own speaker. Thanks to the Arcam Solo’s HDMI inputs, it can play back the lossless audio codecs from Blu-ray, but again, only in stereo.
If the price for the Arcam system were closer to that of the Paradigm, we might have faced a harder decision, but at 33 percent more for the Arcam (with the subwoofer added), the Paradigm is a better choice overall.
Our previous winner, the MartinLogan Motion Vision, still sounds very good but lacks any sort of wireless streaming without an external box. The Motion Vision produces very good bass, but it isn’t as detailed as the Monitor Audio. Overall, the Paradigm Soundscape is equal or better in sound quality and has built-in streaming, so it’s the better upgrade pick.
The Focal Dimension is an attractive soundbar that does well with movies but comes up short of the Paradigm in music and features. With movies the Focal sounds very good: It produces a large soundstage that doesn’t do surround as well as the Yamaha soundbars but gets closer than anything else. Voices are clear with a dedicated center channel. Even without the sub, the bar has good bass. With music playing it sounds thin in the midrange next to the Paradigm. Some tracks sound very good, while others get a bit brittle in comparison.
An optional Focal Dimension Subwoofer exists, but it’s wired and designed to be used as a pedestal stand for a TV. You can also use a line-out with a different subwoofer. The unit has no wireless option; while the pedestal idea is interesting, the product could still be wireless with the same design. Adding the subwoofer brings out deep bass that the Focal Dimension itself (and the Paradigm Soundscape) cannot produce. While it improves the sound, it does limit you to that pedestal mount.
Another problem with the Focal offering is that it has no integrated Bluetooth support. Instead, using Bluetooth requires inserting an included external adapter, which takes up the only analog input and also requires its own AC adapter. Even though the Focal’s audio quality is as good, we still prefer the Paradigm for its better ergonomics, integrated Bluetooth, and wireless subwoofer adapter.
The Definitive Technology SoloCinema Studio is well regarded at Digital Trends and comes in an attractive size that looks nice, seems well-built, and includes an external subwoofer. It sounds good with movies but is a bit harsher with music. It also has a tendency to add a large soundstage, but not one that sounds like the naturally recorded kind; instead it often sounds as if things had been recorded in an empty warehouse. The buttons on top lack any tactile feedback to indicate that you pressed them, and the unit gives no indication of what input it’s on. The maximum volume is also far below that of the other models we considered, and might not fill the largest rooms. We’d pass.
The Bowers & Wilkins Panorama 2 is the best-looking of the soundbars we brought in-house, but it’s also notably expensive. It has rave reviews from What HiFi, Trusted Reviews, and Sound & Vision. It also lacks any wireless audio features, but since it had very good reviews, we wanted to evaluate it. While the soundstage is confined in stereo mode, it gets larger when the Dolby Pro Logic II mode is enabled. The front display offers little information, and you have to rely on the On Screen Display for most of your feedback. The tiny remote is impossible to use in the dark, as it isn’t backlit and the buttons are the same size and shape. The main drawback, however, is a DSP that often seems to adjust to music and movies on the fly—everything will sound very good, but as soon as a voice or instrument enters the mix, the whole soundstage changes. It’s a disconcerting effect that we do not like.
Sony’s HT-ST7 is a well-built soundbar-with-subwoofer system that has lots of features but lacks the sound quality of the Paradigm Soundscape. It produces good surround effects and is nicely constructed, but it isn’t as good with stereo music as the Paradigm.
The Samsung HW-F850 has a room correction system, but at the time of our review it was priced too high for the sound quality it delivered. Although the tubes did a nice job of smoothing out harsh recordings, the other soundbars in our test group produced better audio quality relative to cost.
The Atlantic Technology PB-235 provides very good sound quality but lacks any wireless features or HDMI, which makes it a worse fit for most people than when it was originally released.
While the Definitive Technology SoloCinema XTR has impressive build quality, a thin profile, and HDMI inputs, it offers no wireless functionality, and user reviews bring up lots of reliability issues.
Last May, Sony announced its HT-NT5 Sound Bar with Wireless Subwoofer, and although we haven’t heard it yet, it does have the potential to rival the Sonos Playbar, especially in connectivity. This $800 Sony soundbar features HDMI with HDCP 2.2 copy protection and support for 4K high dynamic range video. It offers Google Cast capabilities, too, with support for Google Play Music, Spotify Connect, Pandora, and direct streaming from your smartphone or laptop.
At CES 2017, Sony introduced the HT-ST5000 soundbar, which supports HDR content as well as Dolby Atmos and Google Home. It has three HDMI inputs, one HDMI ARC output, a USB input, Bluetooth, and digital optical and analog connections. The HT-ST5000 will cost $1,500 when it’s released in July 2017.
In March 2017, Sonos announced the Playbase, a speaker designed for TVs that aren’t wall-mounted. The Playbase sits directly underneath your TV—it can support up to 77 pounds—and has three ports, for Ethernet, optical audio, and power. It supports Dolby Digital for surround. The Playbase starts shipping in April for $700.
Also in March, Denon announced the $900 HEOS Bar (as well as the $600 HEOS subwoofer), a wireless soundbar that can connect via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi and offers integration with Denon’s HEOS wireless multiroom technology—meaning compatibility with streaming services like Spotify and Pandora—as well as Dolby True HD and DTS-HD Master Audio. It has four 4K-compliant HDMI 2.0a ports. The soundbar and subwoofer will be available in April 2017.
In September 2016, Bose released the SoundTouch 300, a soundbar with an HDMI port and an optical digital audio connection, as well as Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity (enabled with NFC) for easy streaming of music services such as Spotify and Pandora. The SoundTouch 300 also features PhaseGuide technology, which creates clear left and right channels even though audio emits from a single unit. This Bose soundbar can connect to other SoundTouch models or match with the company’s Acoustimass 300 bass module and Virtually Invisible 300 wireless surround speakers as a part of its 5.1-channel system. The SoundTouch 300 is available now.
We also plan to bring in Yamaha’s Dolby Atmos- and DTS:X-capable Yamaha YSP-5600, as well as Samsung’s HW-K950 with Dolby Atmos, plus other, slightly more affordable offerings from both companies.
The Sonos Playbar is a great-sounding, simple soundbar that also works as part of our favorite multiroom digital music system. For the price, it’s hard to beat in sound quality, and if most of your content consists of streaming movies and digital music, it should be right up your alley. If you’re looking for a significant upgrade in performance and connectivity, the Paradigm Soundscape is a terrific-sounding, easy-to-use, full-featured soundbar that will fill your home with music. It blows away any TV speakers, it has Bluetooth support to work with all your portable devices and computers, and it possesses enough inputs to work with anything else you have to hook up. The included wireless subwoofer kit is icing on the cake.
Originally published: June 14, 2016